WASHINGTON – National security experts have expressed alarm over the announcement by Iran that it will position its warships off the coast of the United States, from where they could launch a nuclear warhead to explode at high altitude to create an electromagnetic pulse.
That could knock the American electrical grid out of commission, disrupting supplies of energy, food, communications, fuel and more for a long period.
These experts agree that there would be no warning and that the U.S. missile defense system would not be able to respond in time to prevent the high altitude nuclear explosion. They also believe that if such a missile were launched, it would not be from an Iranian warship but from a commercial vessel sailing along the East Coast or in the Gulf of Mexico.
“It shows they could put a weapon on a boat or freighter, and if Iran has ballistic missiles it could put it anywhere on the U.S. coast,” said John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and currently a senior fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.
Last month, the Iranian Fars News Agency announced that the fleet would undertake a three-month mission and would consist of a destroyer and a helicopter-carrying vessel.
While the Iranian deployment may consist of two vessels, the commander of Iran’s Northern Navy Fleet, Adm.l Afshin Rezayee Haddad, said that Iran would send a “fleet” to the Atlantic Ocean.
These ships undoubtedly would be under constant U.S. Navy observation while trolling along the U.S. East Coast and possibly in the Gulf of Mexico.
The ships could use Venezuela as station to refuel and resupply, or could return to Iran.
Iran’s decision to place its warships off the U.S. East Coast was prompted by the U.S. decision to place warships of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet at Bahrain, not far from Iran. And there are U.S. carrier task forces constantly patrolling through the Strait of Hormuz, which skirts Iranian territory.
This deployment to the U.S. East Coast would be the first time Iran has stationed ships outside the Persian Gulf. For the past three years, it has been sending its warships through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean to show its capabilities.
Bolton said that the Iranian exercise is more of a training mission to show that it can sail across the Atlantic and come up to the U.S. coast.
Scientists and other experts have warned for years that the nation’s electrical grid system, together with other critical infrastructures that have an almost complete dependency on electricity and electronic components, are highly vulnerable to an electromagnetic pulse event, either from natural or man-made causes.
However, Congress and the administrations of previous and current presidents largely have ignored those warnings.
“They’re building up capabilities,” Bolton said. “That’s what training missions do.”
The coastal deployment plan comes as the United States and its allies again meet on Feb. 18 with Iranian officials in Vienna to come to a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran wants to end Western economic sanctions while the U.S. and its allies seek to halt any effort by Iran to develop nuclear weapons, which Iran claims it is not doing with its nascent nuclear program.
Some national security experts are worried that Iran could park is warships outside U.S. territorial waters and be in a position to launch an EMP attack should the U.S. decide to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Kenneth Chrosniak said that the Iranian warships will be “extensively tracked and, if need be, engaged by an overwhelming triad of conventional U.S. forces if they attempt to fire a missile.
“However, if they home port out of Venezuela, we may be more vulnerable to engagement to our exposed southern shores,” Chrosniak said. “Even so, I believe we’ll have adequate ‘visability/awareness.’”
Former Ambassador Henry Cooper, who heads High Frontier and was the Strategic Defense Initiative Director under former President George H.W. Bush, said that the issue is not one just of awareness.
“What if they covertly erect and launch a nuclear armed ballistic missile from near our coast?” Cooper asked. “And actually, I am more concerned that they could do this from a more conventional vessel than a warship – perhaps while we are watching the few warships and ignoring the hundreds of commercial vessels.”
Cooper, who is a member of the newly formed EMP Coalition headed by former Central Intelligence Director James Woolsey and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has expressed concern about America’s exposure to any missile launches from the south.
His main concern is that the U.S. lacks a ballistic missile system to watch the south part of the U.S. should there be a missile launch from either North Korea or Iran, both which have previously tested missiles over the southern polar icecap.
Cooper would like to see the U.S. Navy move more of its Aegis warships into the Gulf and off the southern portion of the East Coast to respond to any missile attack.
However, other experts agree that a missile fired by North Korea, Iran or any other nation with missile and nuclear warhead stockpiles off the coast so close to the East or Gulf Coasts could not be intercepted in time.
In referring to the impending arrival of the Iranian warships off the U.S. East Coast, former CIA operative Reza Kahlili said that they are test runs “for a long term presence in collaboration with their allies in this region.”
In addition to Venezuela, those other countries close to Iran include Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador.
“If (the Iranians) do anything, it will be via a commercial vessel,” Kahlili said.
Experts have suggested that an EMP strike could disable most electronics, which control food, water, fuel, energy and other supplies, as well as communications links and more. Ultimately, such a strike on an unprepared U.S. is estimated to result in tens of millions of casualties.